Overnight camps in Canada are finally planning for a summer filled with less-restrictive late-night fireside chats, wilderness adventures and cabin camaraderie, after more than two years of pandemic restrictions and closures that had devastating impacts on their business.
With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in recent months, many overnight or sleepover camps opened registration earlier than usual this year after rollercoaster 2020 and 2021 seasons. Private and non-profit camps alike say they’re filling up for 2022, and some even have wait lists.
“The camps I’ve been talking to are having historically high registration, with numbers higher now than a year ago or some even pre-pandemic,” says Stéphane Richard, past president and treasurer of the Canadian Camping Association (CCA), which has about 750 overnight and 250 day camp members.
“So many things were eliminated or removed over the course of the pandemic that people now want to go back to recreation and a certain level of normalcy,” Mr. Richard says from Saint-Antoine, N.B. “There’s a renewed energy. There’s also a little bit of nervousness, but everybody’s very excited.”
CCA’s survey of member camps in the fall of 2020 found that nearly a third of camps risked bankruptcy by year’s end for missing one summer season, and up to 60 per cent didn’t anticipate surviving in the event of a two-summer layoff.
Mr. Richard says the CCA is gathering data to see how they’ve fared since. So far, indications are that “there were some closures, but nowhere near the number potentially targeted in that survey,” due to government pandemic relief programs and camps’ fundraising efforts.
Earlier this year, provincial and territorial reopening plans included shifting from pandemic-era rules like lockdowns to communicable disease management.
“The reality is it’s a camp-by-camp decision on what their specific policy will be on how to manage COVID … that being said, for every camp I’m talking to, there’s still a very proactive COVID management piece in it,” says Mr. Richard.
“I’m also hearing from parents who continue to have questions about, ‘What will your camp be doing and how are you managing it?’”
YMCA Canada, which has 22 overnight camps delivered through 17 associations, is welcoming campers back “for traditional overnight experiences” in 2022, says Denise Gho, YMCA Canada’s manager of marketing and communications. Regular overnight camps were largely put on hold in 2020, and last year, most remained closed while others offered modified programming like family cabin rentals and day visits, she says.
Katie Haines, a mom of two from Bloomfield, N.B, says despite some concerns about the pandemic, she’s thankful the YMCA of Greater Saint John’s only overnight camp, Camp Glenburn, continued operating.
For years, the Haines family has attended the camp in New Brunswick’s Kingston Peninsula, which opened in 1928. As a camper for six summers starting in 1985, Ms. Haines developed friendships at the camp that she maintains today, and her daughter, Sadie, has been going every summer since 2013.
In 2020, when the camp decided to open, “at first it was only going to be for children from New Brunswick, but then that changed,” says Ms. Haines, 45. “One of Sadie’s closest friends is from Halifax and after she stayed with her grandmother [in New Brunswick] for a 14-day isolation, she was able to go to the camp.”
Last summer, Sadie was in a two-week leadership program that included a five-day canoe trip. Now 14, she’ll spend three weeks at Camp Glenburn amid strict cleaning practices and a mandatory vaccination policy.
Ms. Haines echoes the camping industry’s view that overnight camp is invaluable to young people.
“For Sadie, it includes being able to maintain the bond she has with her friend from Halifax, and the friendships she’s made, and the stuff she’s learned … being on a schedule almost like a university experience.”
Shilo Boucher, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Saint John, says the organization works closely with the medical officer of health – as do many camps across Canada. In 2020, Camp Glenburn opened for five weeks instead of the typical seven to eight.
The prospect of no overnight program in 2020 “was scary for us as a charity, but also scary for the kids who weren’t going to get that opportunity. That’s what drove us to make sure this opportunity wasn’t missed,” says Ms. Boucher.
“It was a little nerve racking and we thought we were taking a big risk operating during the early part of the pandemic, but that risk has paid off.”
Camp Glenburn will open in early July for the full summer, and the number of registrants is much higher than last year with some wait lists, says Ms. Boucher, noting the camp can accommodate about 700 campers over the summer. She says that as part of extra safety measures, the camp hired more staff and all staff and campers must be fully vaccinated. Mask wearing will be a personal choice.
The protocols are different at the YMCA’s Big Cove Camp in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County for youth ages six to 16. It was founded in 1889 and is billed as the oldest overnight camp in Canada.
This summer at Big Cove, masking is mandatory for staff but optional for campers, and there’s no vaccination policy, although few staff aren’t vaccinated, says TL Johannesson, general manager, child and youth, for the YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth.
In 2020, based on public health and YMCA guidelines, Big Cove didn’t operate its overnight camp, but allowed families to rent cabins and bring their own food, notes Ms. Johannesson.
“Last summer, we went back to normal operations based on public health [guidelines] when there was a lull in the pandemic. Our average number of participants is 850 to 900 kids, but we didn’t open as many spots and had over 700.
“This year is crazy. We were full in the first two days of registration and now there’s a wait list of 200 kids.”
Camp Amy Molson, an overnight camp in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge, Que., has special programs for vulnerable children ages 5 to 14 from the Montreal area. It was founded in 1944, when there were 58 campers from foster homes or orphanages and five counsellors. Today, the 73-hectare camp normally serves some 150 children and has 70 staff. Fees are charged based on a sliding scale or the parents’ ability to pay.
In 2020, there were only day and virtual programs, but the overnight programs restarted in 2021 under “significant” public health measures, says Shauna Joyce, Camp Amy Molson’s executive director as well as the CCA’s new president. This summer, all three 15-day sessions are expected to open.
The camp has also boosted salaries and hired both locally and internationally to prevent staff shortages and address the stress and anxiety some experienced during the pandemic, Ms. Joyce notes. There will also be a camp support specialist on site to assist campers and staff, she adds.
Mr. Richard, past president of the CCA, says 2022 will be “a very critical year for camps.”
He believes the ones that opened in some capacity in 2020 and 2021 will likely have a better chance of doing well this summer, especially as governments halt COVID-19 funding supports.
“The around 50 per cent of overnight camps that did not operate are the ones we’re worried about in the sector,” says Mr. Richard, noting some may have lost campers and staff who’ve moved on to other camps or jobs.
Ms. Haines can’t imagine sending Sadie anywhere else but the camp her family has embraced for decades.
“We have a really wonderful group of people at Glenburn,” she says.